Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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How to Beat the Law of Averages

The culture machine belches up more records than anyone can use, and so the law of averages assures that if you love music there will always be something new to ring your bell or get you through the night. But in a time when crude knockoffs (hello, Seven Mary Three) and ill-conceived trends (hiya, Dave Matthews) are crowding out the breakthroughs of just a few years ago, finding that something is about as much fun as voting for president. You can pass off this drought as cyclical, but it's also a symptom of the same craven politics that make the presidency such a nightmare--the pandering, the corporatism, the refusal to look reality in the face. If it's only a lull, we're lucky.

In boom times great rock and roll comes easy. Around '65 and '66, you could do fine merely zoning in on Top 40--just as you could suck up English punk singles for a few glorious months of 1977 or home-tape hip hop mixes circa 1988 or invest in American guitar rock post-Nirvana. Sure true believers always got carried away. But the ride was worth it, the good music they'd ignored still there when they regained their equilibrium. And they needed that music after boom turned bust. Of the four surges listed above, only the flowering of '60s Top 40 didn't end in glut, self-parody, and pod people. Instead, Sgt. Pepper convinced bizzers to declare the rock album the music's "artistic unit"--a dangerous conceit that inspired lots of overrated filler, but hardly a bust. That came around 1971, and it was a doozy.

Even in a recession, the shit never runs out. Between "the day the music died" in 1959 and Beatlemania in 1964 we got girl groups, Motown, surf, early soul, acoustic Dylan, classic Coltrane, and George Jones. Similarly, the early '70s feasted on the dregs of countercultural energy, giving up lots of odd brilliance as well as the funk beats that still kick today. But at the same moment liberated artists, misguided consumers, and salivating businessmen were laying many miles of bad road. In roughly descending order, popular subgenres of the day included boogie, heavy metal, sensitive jerks with acoustic guitars, L.A. country-rock, jazz fusion, and the ornate claptrap grandly and banally dubbed art-rock.

It is a bad omen that except for metal, which is in remission, the others are all making comebacks, often in updated and supposedly uncorny recombined forms heralded by roots-entwined Midwesterners (country-rock plus boogie), musicianly H.O.R.D.E. bands (boogie plus art-rock and/or fusion), acid jazz mastermixers (fusion plus funk minus ass), and coolly fatuous "post-rockers" (fusion plus art-rock plus leisure-kitsch plus gin plus vermouth). Then there are the sensitive jerks with acoustic guitars, just as noodle-headed in Austin and Nashville as they used to be (and still are) in L.A. and greater Greenwich Village.

The early '70s was an enormously confused time. The rock "counterculture" had taken over--yet that same counterculture's sense of community and consensus had broken down, and the Vietnam War was dragging on long after it was supposed to be over. So perhaps it was inevitable that many musicians withdrew into pretension and illusion, privatism and conservatism, smug greed and self-serving mutual congratulation. Did someone say Mellon Collie and the Infinite Regress? Did someone say Phfffish?

It's only fair to note the competing analogy making the rounds today: the ultimately misleading notion that the great pop of the middle '90s is the new wave of New Wave. In this metaphor, grunge was punk, Nirvana a cross between the Sex Pistols and the Police, and 1979 not a dead end but a brave new day. Then as now, we are told, hep-pop reflects the music business's attempt to control, cutesify, and make loads of money off inchoately independent rock energy. And as usual, the theory holds, the biz's power play hasn't turned out so bad, because music is ultimately uncontrollable. Sure we get the Knack (who, it is said, were actually pretty good, as if "pretty good" meant "better than Silverchair"), but we also get PiL and the B-52's. From Hole to Foo Fighters, Elastica to Alanis, we're not doing so bad.

There's truth to this analogy. Punk didn't merely implode. It was the root of most of today's best music. Similarly, Nirvana's aftershocks continued post-Cobain, as bands good, bad, and indifferent turned their major-label seed money into records for consumers smart, not so smart, and less smart than that. The result was 1994, an extraordinary year for guitars--Green Day and Soundgarden storming the charts along with the Beastie Boys and Pearl Jam, Hole and Pavement cutting a swath--that also made room for significant others from Beck to Portishead to Nine Inch Nails. Indeed, without Nirvanamania, we might still be mired in "classic rock," and that would suck too.

But in America, the original New Wave was a blip commercially, barely touching the nascent alt-rock counterculture of the '80s. With the new wave of New Wave, on the other hand, the biz swallowed a mature counterculture whole, so that 1994 was the top of a curve we can't be certain we've reached the bottom of. No longer do the majors wait for "alternative" bands to mature before bringing them up from the indie farm team. The Silverchair of today is the Grand Funk Railroad of yesteryear, and Cracked Rear View is Frampton Comes Alive!--a pattern that threatens to stretch into a vast gray future, with no Ramones or Sex Pistols imaginable, never mind in sight.

Nor will the day be saved by the black musicians white Americans count on to show them the way. In the early '70s, whites understood funk as badly as they did Black Power and black musicians were befuddled by their enforced cultural and economic insularity. In the mid-'90s, a combination of racism and good old-fashioned artiness has marginalized hip hop, where innovative artists now proudly design their innovations for cognoscenti whose disdain for pop outreach is no longer rhetorical. As for trip-hop and techno's postvocal experimentation, only in the early big-band era has the pop audience attuned itself to a primarily instrumental music. Although the millennium is coming, I doubt humanity is ready to do without songs quite yet. Or a good beat either.

Maybe hip hop will right itself; the street-smart, nonsexist Fugees are reason to hope. Maybe world music will suddenly live up to its theoretical appeal. Maybe the inevitable end of the alt-rock feeding frenzy will revitalize its counterculture sooner rather than later. Maybe some genius will pop out of nowhere like Prince and prove more capable of leadership than Prince was or Polly Jean Harvey is. Shit, maybe we'll get utopia. Maybe young citizens will wake from their self-delusions and, after figuring out that misery is the most contagious of all human diseases, also figure out how to control it. Maybe there'll be a consensus that lets me not just experience the music but share it, which is much more fun.

A guy can dream. But until his dreams come true, he'll get through the night by listening, and so will you. So I suggest you keep your ears way open and grab every thrilling new sound that comes your way. Ever try Western swing? Very eclectic, as they say. And there's this young saxophonist named James Carter who could be the next Sonny Rollins. The corporate watchdogs haven't taken your bell away from you yet. So for Christ's sake let it ring.

Details, 1996